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USC Pursues Passing Grade

The Trojan secondary has improved after a slow start, but it will get a stern test against Pickett and Washington.

October 23, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

USC's offense is rolling with a quarterback ranked first in the Pacific 10 Conference and 10th in the nation in passing efficiency.

The Trojans' front seven is dominating the line of scrimmage with a rushing defense ranked ninth in the nation and a sack total that tops the Pac-10.

Then there is USC's secondary.

The Trojans are seventh in the conference and 96th among 117 Division I-A teams in pass defense.

As bad as that looks, it is a marked improvement from two weeks ago, when USC was last in the Pac-10 and 109th nationally.

"We're coming together," senior cornerback Will Poole said. "Week in and week out, we're doing better."

After playing consecutive games against two of the nation's weaker passing offenses, USC's secondary again will be a primary concern when the fifth-ranked Trojans play Washington in a Pac-10 game Saturday in Seattle.

Washington quarterback Cody Pickett and receivers Reggie Williams and Charles Frederick spurred the Huskies to victory over Oregon State last week, a win that kept Washington in the race for the conference title and the Rose Bowl.

The Huskies are ranked 22nd nationally in passing offense, averaging 279.3 yards a game.

"This is a well-equipped passing team," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "These guys can put up huge numbers."

Washington presents a major step up in degree of difficulty for the Trojans, who are coming off victories over Stanford, ranked 97th in passing offense, and Notre Dame, which is 104th.

"There's no doubt, we have a tough challenge this week," senior cornerback Marcell Allmond said.

The toughest job facing Allmond, Poole, top cornerback reserve Ronald Nunn, free safety Jason Leach and strong safety Darnell Bing might be proving that their numbers are misleading.

The Trojans are surrendering 255.4 passing yards a game, a statistic Carroll and members of the secondary say is skewed because of the type of offenses they faced during the first five weeks of the season.

USC, which has allowed 11 touchdown passes, limited Auburn to 121 passing yards in the season opener before Brigham Young passed for 313 yards and Hawaii 399 in defeats against the Trojans.

USC gave up 326 yards in its 34-31 triple-overtime loss to California and allowed Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter to break out of an early-season funk with a 305-yard passing day.

Allmond said he hurt the Trojans early in the season by "trying too many things I shouldn't have been doing." But Nunn said no single player was responsible for the Trojans' struggles.

"We had a lot of missed assignments and blown coverages," Nunn said. "The safeties were getting in the seams and the corners were giving up a lot of slants and not tackling.

"We would be right there to make the play -- and then we wouldn't make the play and we wouldn't make the tackle either."

Nunn said the Trojans began solving their problems in practice before playing Stanford on Oct. 11.

"We got back to the basics in our techniques," he said. "We went back to the drawing board and started doing the things we've been coached to do."

With the secondary taking care of coverage responsibilities, defensive end Kenechi Udeze recorded three sacks against Stanford. The Cardinal passed for 156 yards.

Last week at Notre Dame, USC gave up 168 passing yards as Udeze and defensive tackle Mike Patterson combined for four sacks.

"We're starting to talk better and we're communicating more," Poole said.

Bing, a freshman, said he is reading plays quicker, and more correctly, than earlier in the season.

But Leach said no major adjustments had been made by the safeties.

"We're not doing that much differently," Leach said.

"We're just more conscious of staying on top of our coverage and letting the D-linemen do their thing."

Carroll, also the Trojans' defensive coordinator, said the secondary had become more consistent the last two weeks and that he was more concerned about preventing big plays than total yardage. But he added that the Trojan defense is still not executing well enough on third down. Stanford and Notre Dame each converted seven of 16 third-down attempts against the Trojans.

Carroll expects his defense to be challenged by Pickett, who completed 34 of 61 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns last season in a 41-21 loss to USC at the Coliseum.

Washington is using a more balanced offense this season, but Pickett still threw 40 passes -- including three that went for touchdowns -- in the Huskies' 38-17 victory at Oregon State.

Allmond said the secondary is looking forward to the matchup -- and the opportunity to improve its standing and reputation.

"If we follow directions and play the way they coach us, we'll be fine," he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Secondary Efforts

USC is ranked 96th in the nation in pass defense. How the Trojans compare with the top 10:

*--* N. School Att Cmp Yds/Att Yds/G 1. Penn State 157 73 5.39 121.00 2. Michigan 229 118 4.78 136.75 3. Southern Miss. 138 70 6.11 140.50 4. Oklahoma 223 110 4.71 150.14 5. Navy 168 96 6.33 151.86 6. Nebraska 217 99 4.97 154.14 7. Texas 146 68 7.43 155.00 8. San Diego St. 223 115 5.74 160.13 9. Miami 186 95 6.13 163.00 10. South Carolina 202 113 5.69 164.29 96. USC 288 161 6.2 255.4

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